On June 11th 2006, many Japanese Taido black belts met in Ito, Shizuoka prefecture for the chance to be promoted to the next rank. The high-rank shinsa is held only once a year, and getting invited is the only way to test for 4dan or above in Japan. It’s also the only way to receive the renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi teaching certifications, respectively for 4dan, 6dan, and 8dan instructors.
In 2005, two members of the Yokohama dojo passed 5dan and 6dan. At the time of this writing, two of our instructors are testing for 4dan and 7dan. I was also invited to attend the grading, but I terminated my application.
Why would I do such a thing?
First, I guess I should refer you to a few of my other articles that have to do with martial arts gradings and the belt/ranking system – check out this, this, and this. It should be pretty obvious that I’m not enamored of the way these issues are currently being handled in Japanese or American Taido. I’ve offered some ideas for improvement, but have yet to come up with what I believe to be a definitive solution to the numerous problems I’ve pointed out.
Nonetheless, if I’m going to be part of organizations that employ a ranking system, I do want to continue being promoted to higher and higher levels. I want to be careful to avoid giving the impression that I’m avoiding this shinsa to make some kind of political statement. Further, I don’t want to belittle anyone else’s grade in Taido. Though my decision not to test did include considerations beyond my own personal development, it was my own decision, made in light of examining my own values.
Let’s start with those values:
- My own development as a person and as a martial artist
- The development of my students as people and as martial artists
I place the highest premium on my own development. This is a natural thing to value, but I think many people overlook the obvious when it comes to making big decisions. I like to think of myself as somebody who doesn’t mistake the obvious. I feel that my development as a person is the primary concern of my life – the more I better myself, the better I can to any other thing I want to do. Just as Dr. Timothy Leary said that social intelligence increase could be exponential if pursued in earnest (because we would have smarter people studying ways to get even smarter), I believe that any improvement I make to myself improves my abilities to make other improvements to myself and anything else that needs improving.
That includes my students, which is not to suggest that I feel they are undeveloped. But they obviously would not engage in difficult work for self-improvment unless they felt a real desire to make some sort of gain. Helping them achieve their own goals in Taido is almost as important to me as achieving my own. This is because sharing something you love is much more fun than doing it by yourself. I’m really honored to have people choose me as one of their mentors in their personal development, and I have to take them into consideration in every choice I make.
Reasons to Test
Renshi in Taido equates to an instructor’s license. It used to be available from 3dan, but now only 4dan or above qualify. We don’t use the renshi (or kyoshi or hanshi) designation in America, partly because it was only a few years ago that we had more than one or two 4dan in our organization. In addition, until Bryan and I opened up shop at Georgia Tech, nobody in the States taught outside of the headquarters school, making certification beyond verbal consent unnecessary. Tom DeVenny and I are the only two instructors in America who have ever received any kind of teaching credential that extended beyond the door of the honbu dojo.
If I were to test for promotion in Japan, I would have the option to register myself as renshi, and this would theoretically give me authorization to go anywhere in the world and teach Taido. I would like to do this. In fact, testing for renshi was the original rationale for even thinking about shinsa. It was only a couple of weeks ago that a few people told me that I may as well test for 5dan while I had the opportunity. We don’t have any renshi in America. Uchida Sensei’s kyoshi is the only official teaching license in US Taido, so I figured it might be cool if I were to obtain such certification as well.
Benefit to My Students
After all, boosting the head instructor of a group has the potential to boost all of the students in that group. Me having a higher rank and the renshi title might get my club some consideration in world Taido events. It would theoretically earn me the blessing of Taido Honin to teach and test students. It may open a few doors for me in my attempts at Taido internationalization.
Sometimes, black is just a little boring. Maybe this is why Uchida Sensei has shifted toward the giant block-font names and multiple stripes on the black belts he gives out. I haven’t had more than one color on my belt (excluding embroidery, and I absolutely refuse to wear a belt that has stripes on it) in almost fifteen years. Outside of America, 5dan and above get to wear a fancy black/green belt that has both colors running lengthwise. They look pretty cool – or at least used to. Recently, Japan Taido is having some trouble with their uniform suppliers, and the new belts (not to mention the hakama) look like crap. People often compliment me on my good-looking belt (which I had custom made for myself), so maybe I should stick with that for now.
I’ve never taken a grading in Japan. It would have been something interesting that I could have said I did.
I’m Good Enough
This is the most important reason. I’m very much good enough to be 5dan in Taido. I don’t always show this in the right ways to the right people, but I think this website offers a certain amount of evidence that my passion for and thinking about Taido go at least a little beyond what most practitioners exhibit.
Maybe I don’t always give the “correct” answers about Taido theory, but it’s usually not for lack of understanding. I do an average of 15 hours per week of reading and research in fields related to Taido. I am involved in physical exploration and practice for at least a solid hour every single day. When I do something that’s a little different, there’s a reason. Taido is supposed to be evolving, and I’m dedicated to pushing that envelope to the extremes. I think this is more important than playing it safe and copying the Taido everyone else is doing.
I personally know a lot of renshi in Taido who are terrible instructors. I feel I should be offered every recognition of my teaching efforts and skills in contrast to those who are teachers in name, but not in action. I also know a lot of 5dan. Some of them are really good, and I would be honored to be counted among them. Others of them are not very good at all, and I have just enough ego to admit that this bothers me.
Setting an Example
Beyond the above, 4dan has some serious kind of inertia. This seems to be true of all martial arts. There seems to be some sort of almost gravitational force that holds martial artists down to 4dan for extremely long periods of time. Many instructors just stop grading at this point, even though they are actively teaching and practicing. I can respect the reasons why they may wish to do this, because I too am extremely disillusioned with politics that surround high-rank promotions, but I’ve always looked at giving up as a bit of a cop out. If more of us who actually are qualified and actually do practice were to actively seek promotion, it might do something to change the sad state of the current ranking system for the better.
Reasons Not To Test
It’s Silly Expensive
The test for any level above 3dan is almost $200 in Japan. That’s probably consistent with what most martial arts organizations charge for advanced gradings, but there’s really no justification for that kind of price.
I’ve helped to arrange large events and track registrations in American Taido for a very long time. Making some rough assumptions about the transportation costs of the examiners, the number of people grading, and the costs of the venue, I don’t see any reason why this grading should cost any more than sixty or seventy American dollars. Karate ranking organizations often cite the cost of “registering” ranks, but I could build a database for tracking worldwide belt promotions in about an hour, and my office has equipment that could reproduce the certificates quite easily.
Actually, the fee was one of the reasons I considering an attempt at 5dan. Since I am already 4dan, it seems ridiculous to pay that kind of money to test for 4dan again just so I could register for renshi. Speaking of renshi – that costs close to $300. For that price, I would want a half-day seminar on theory and methods and some sort of printed materials. I have attended hundred-dollar seminars and that have damn-near changed my life, but I’ve never paid $300 for a piece of paper before. Which brings me to my next point:
It’s Just a Piece of Paper
Now some folks might disagree with me here. That’s fine. But I’m not trying to open a dojo in Japan, so a fancy certification in fancy kanji with a big red stamp does not do anything for me (and I can actually read what all those squiggles are supposed to mean).
The first time I thought about grading in Japan, I was having a talk with Saito Sensei about some of the things I want to do in the future (specifically, opening more clubs in the States). He asked me if I was renshi, and I said “nope.” He told me that I should grade so I can teach, and I just took it at face value because I know that he likes me and wants to help me out. Thinking more deeply a few hours later, I realized what a strange reason that was to test. Especially considering that I’ve been teaching independently for about ten years now. Certainly, my lack of renshi papers has not done anything to diminish the quality of my instruction, as anyone familiar with the program at Tech can attest.
What Saito Sensei meant was that I would have the official certification from Taido Honin. Though I already have a nice certificate announcing my credentials to teach in America, I am not recognized by Taido Honin as a real instructor. However, nobody in America recognizes Taido Honin as anything at all, so it’s not such a big deal (and I’m not writing that to be snide – it’s just that they haven’t really done very much to make themselves known in America). Even assuming some “moral” responsibility to be certified, do I really expect that I would receive any actual support for my troubles? I have plenty of people who want to support my Taido, so it’s really moot, but I seriously doubt that anyone from honin is going to be offering me much help in the things I hope to accomplish.
The first issue that comes up is that, even though I was in Japan then, I wasn’t going to be for long. I’m still an American, and plan to do much of my Taido in America in the future. Everyone in Japan knows this, as does everyone in America. By cross-ranking I would be inviting all sorts of irrelevant comparisons, questions as to where my loyalty lay (the answer: to myself and my students), and other stupidity.
Not to mention that there are a few people over here who don’t get along with my teacher very well. I would not like to be creating a situation in which they felt that I could be used as some sort of bargaining chip in negotiations with American Taido in the future. For that matter, what do we need to negotiate about anyway? Why is ranking so fucking political anyway? I don’t know, but most martial artists who know anything will readily admit that anything above 4dan has very little to do with ability and a lot to do with politics. I work in the public school system, so I don’t need any more politics when it comes to Taido.
Detriment to My Students
There’s the possibility that my testing could have some negative impacts on relations between Japan Taido and American Taido. Since I have some great friends in Japan and obligations to students in Atlanta, I don’t want to do anything that might make it difficult for them to benefit from what I do. I don’t want to end up on anybody’s don’t-talk-to-this-guy list because I took some stupid test. I feel that my students have a lot to gain from my extended network of Taido contacts, so I want to work hard to maintain and improve them.
If I fuck things up politically in Japan, Uchida Sensei won’t have a lot of choice to have me as part of his organization – and that’s something neither of us wants. I can’t become a liability for him because it jeopardizes Taido for everyone in the States. Of course, I will always have the ability to practice and teach Taido, regardless of what anybody else says, but I’d much prefer to do it in a way that benefits as many people as possible. There is enough negativity in the world. If I can’t have my promotion in a healthy and positive way, I’m not interested in testing.
Man, I talked to a lot of people about this, and I was leaning toward testing until a couple of days before the deadline. Lots of Japanese black belts were behind me testing, including most of the guys who would have been evaluating me. The original suggestion to go for 5dan came from someone whose opinion I respect very much.
I sought advice from Negishi Sensei (as I often do about such matters), and he told me pretty much what I could have expected: figure out what’s best for you, and do that. He said I should consult Uchida Sensei (duh), but that I should make my own choice to do what’s best for myself, even if it meant going against Uchida. I thought about this.
When I called Uchida, he was excited to hear from me, probably because he had been planning to test three of my students for shodan at the time. I told him that I needed some advice and explained the situation, including the pros and cons I had determined, as listed above (yes, even about the fancy belt). He told me to do what I wanted to do. He didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of me testing for 5dan (and he’s the one who brought that up – not me), and he seemed to think the renshi certification was viable. But he also warned me to remember the political factor, and told me to be sure that I was comfortable with the possible consequences that could arise if I were to test. And I have to admit – that thought did sway my decision.
Well, as I said at the beginning of the article, I didn’t test. I could have done so, and there would have been some possible benefits, but there was a risk that I could create some serious political tension by grading outside of my own organization.
It’s really a shame that situations like this arise, and I know some of my friends will argue that they only come up in Taido between Japan and America. Maybe they’re right, but I’m not so sure. What I know for a fact is that a big part of the political stuff is just ego crap that doesn’t interest me. Not at all. It didn’t in Japan, and it doesn’t in America either.
I still plan to someday pass 5dan (and at least a couple more levels after that) and register an instructor’s rank, but neither one is a big priority to me at the moment. Especially since I don’t believe that the qualification criteria and examination procedures are indicative of the healthy and positive recognition of individual achievements I would like to see replace the current belt/rank system.
So, in light of this experience, I will go back to the drawing board on my own solutions for a better system that will work for the highest good of all in Taido. I hope that, in an easy and relaxed manner, we can begin to reorganize our art’s administration to respond fairly and appropriately to changes and shifts that meet the needs of all practitioners. This, in lieu of the current hierarchy (pyramid scheme) of senior authority being centralized according to tradition in Japan, is one of my dreams for the future of Taido.